Mediawatch ignores ABA and judges Jones guilty of Cash for Comment anyway

The ABC’s Mediawatch program claims Macquarie Radio and breakfast announcer, Alan Jones, are still guilty of ‘Cash for Comment’, despite the ABA declaring 2GB had complied with its obligations over Telstra’s sponsorship of Jones’ program.

Even though the ABA has foreshadowed a possible review of the current codes to achieve a more “clear distinction between editorial comment and advertising material”, Mediawatch has launched a scathing attack, branding Jones a “liar” at one stage of last night’s program, devoted entirely to the controversy.

The ABA’s investigation, launched in late 2002, has found 2GB complied with its obligations under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Commercial Radio Standards and the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice.

Under an agreement between Macquarie and Telstra (the Telstra Agreement), Telstra sponsors Jones’ program. Jones is not a party to the Telstra Agreement.

The ABA has ruled that Telstra’s sponsorship of the show was made clear to listeners.

However, Mediawatch is having none of that, as the transcript below reveals:

“…we’ve been doing our best to clean up Cash for Comment too but, last week, Professor David Flint’s Australian Broadcasting Authority, the ABA, gave the thumbs up to a whole new regime of Cash for Comment starring Alan Jones.

The politicians of NSW may no longer get up at dawn to listen to his message of the day, but Jones still has fans in high places, fans like News Ltd world supremo, Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch: ‘Well look at the power of radio, look at your power, you’ve got more power than I have at the moment.
Jones: Oh cut it out.’ – 2GB, Alan Jones’ Breakfast Program, 7 April 2004

Alan, no need to be shy. You still have amazing clout – demonstrated last week when the ABA declared kosher the deal that has you singing Telstra’s song on 2GB.

The ABA’s 18 month investigation of complaints made here on Media Watch, details how Cash for Comment was reinvented in early 2002 when the advertising czar, John Singleton, recruited Alan Jones to his then failing Macquarie Radio.

The scandal that brought on the first Cash for Comment enquiry was still in the air.

‘Mr Singleton was aware … that Mr Jones’ conduct had caused a significant number of breaches of the Commercial Radio Code of Practice. He thought that Mr Jones should not have ‘side deals’…with particular advertisers and that if Mr Jones was to work for Macquarie Radio, it would have to be on the understanding that all money from advertising went to Macquarie Radio. – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, pages 18-19

The same sort of money would flow to Jones, but it would flow through the company.

Just one week after Jones okayed this arrangement – which would deliver him around $4m a year and, in time, a share of the station – CEO George Buschman was offering Telstra the opportunity –
‘to sponsor the Alan Jones’ breakfast show exclusively for a three year period. During this period of time, Telstra will enjoy an exclusive association with Australia’s number one radio personality.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p20

Negotiations between Macquarie Radio and Telstra dragged on for five months, negotiations Jones has always insisted he left up to the radio station. He told the ABC’s Monica Attard: ‘the deal had nothing to do with me, the radio station who has people – who are sales people and managerial people – negotiated that deal.’ – ABC local radio, Sunday Profile, 13 October 2002

Jones was lying. According to the evidence dug up by the ABA, he had several meetings with Telstra and played what the ABA called ‘a key role’ in resolving differences between the telco and the station – after which, station CEO, George Buschman, wrote to Jones: ‘Thanks to your effort Telstra have already rescinded the original document and have put together a far simpler document which I will review.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p21

Until this time, Alan Jones was known to the public as a huge fan of Optus and a big critic of the old national carrier going back to the days when it was still called Telecom.

Alan Jones: ‘Richard Alston, thanks for your time.
Richard Alston: Pleasure Alan.
Jones: Are they corporate thugs? Is this because Telecom is hopelessly inefficient, or is it too big, or is the job that they were seeking to do beyond their capacity?’ – Alan Jones Live, Channel 10, 23 February 1994

And, even as negotiations continued between Macquarie and Telstra, Jones kept hammering the telco.

The ABA noted that during these weeks –
‘Alan Jones made a number of on-air statements critical of Telstra, especially with respect to its fees and charges.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p8

But, those attacks have all but disappeared since the deal between Telstra and Macquarie Radio was signed in July 2002 over lunch in Alan Jones’ office.

‘From 17 July 2002 onwards, the material provided to the ABA records Mr Jones making predominantly positive commentary, supporting Telstra’s service standards, public image and credibility.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p8

The written terms of the deal don’t explain Jones’ miraculous change of heart. The contract guaranteed his editorial freedom in black and white –
‘There is nothing in the commercial agreement that limits Alan Jones’ editorial independence.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p22

And, the ABA revealed Jones intervened personally during the negotiations – ‘to delete clauses restricting Mr Jones from making adverse comment on Telstra.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p21

So, the written contract between the station and the telco left Alan Jones an absolutely free agent, free, if he wished, to go on gushing about Optus and putting the boot into Telstra.

Except that he didn’t. ‘the evidence indicates that Mr Jones generally presented material that was favourable to Telstra, aligning his views with Telstra’s interests and supporting its performance and credibility.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p40

So, how was Jones’ conversion achieved? It’s the absolutely fundamental question in all this, but not a question the ABA answers or even explores.

Here’s a worldly suggestion: whatever the written contract said, Telstra was not going to pay Macquarie Radio a cent, let alone hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, unless Alan Jones was locked in.

Jones himself seemed to understand the unwritten provisions of the deal. As soon as it was signed, he sent Telstra executive, Ted Pretty, this note – ‘Ted, the sentiments you expressed about the union between Telstra and Macquarie Radio are very much reciprocated. We will be doing our very best to advance your causes as well as ours.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p21

Telstra swears it didn’t want Jones to promote its causes, but Jones’ new enthusiasm was hard at work. The very day the deal was signed he was battering his listeners with statistics.

‘Yes, just on Telstra. They advertise with us here but I don’t make comments simply because people advertise with us. But it is extraordinary the volume of work they handle…In 12 months to June 2001, they had put through 11 billion local calls, 10.1m basic access lines, they did 1.2m field jobs – that’s installations and all the rest of it – 1.8m automatic connections, 2.2m repairs, 870 000 new lines added to the network, they took 8.2m, responded to 8.2m customer service calls – I mean that’s phenomenal – 500 000 EFTPOS terminals, 5.2m mobile customers, they serviced 900m international outgoing minutes. They’re just breathtaking figures. Now obviously, in all of that, there will be failures, and there will be problems. There have to be. They try to minimise the problems. I think that’s the point.’ – Alan Jones’ Breakfast Program, 2GB, 17 July 2002, 6.22am

Telstra CEO, Ziggy Switkowski, seemed to be in no doubt that the deal entitled him to turn to Jones for a helping hand when Telstra paid a fortune to put its name on stadiums in Sydney and Melbourne. The ABA found evidence that: ‘senior Telstra management was alert to the sensitivity of the stadium naming rights issue, with the possibility of community criticism.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p31

And, Switkowski emailed Ted Pretty, suggesting the endorsement of Macquarie Radio’s owner, John Singleton, and Chairman, Sam Chisholm: ‘would be valuable in relation to the issue, as would possibly John Laws and Alan Jones.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p39

A day after the launch, Jones delivered big time – ‘Telstra is going to spend an estimated $10m a year to have its name across Sydney’s Stadium Australia and Melbourne’s Colonial Stadium. Now, I guess people who find they’ve got problems with their telephone bill would think, well, what a waste of money. I’m not too sure about that, actually, and I’ll come to that in a moment.’ – Alan Jones Breakfast Program, 2GB, 23 July 2002

Alan explained that battlers (his word) go to the stadiums to enjoy footy: ‘So to the extent I think Telstra is out there spending money where the rank and file and the not so rich might be able to derive a benefit, it’s a contribution. Money spent on customer concerns, I think in this instance it’s Telstra, therefore, being a good corporate citizen.’ – Alan Jones Breakfast Program, 2GB, 23 July 2002

In case Ziggy and the boys missed this, 2GB boss, George Buschman, sent them a tape. ‘Your expanded advertising arrangements with 2GB are well underway. Please find enclosed a cassette of this morning’s Breakfast Program where Alan Jones made comments in relation to your exciting new sponsorship of key stadiums in Australia.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p39

You might think the ABA, having set out all this evidence, would start raging at Jones for covertly pushing the political barrow of his new best friend and station sponsor, Telstra.

How wrong you would be? The ABA concluded Jones spruiked for a number of Telstra’s political causes – full privatisation, the Farmhand Foundation for drought relief and the stadiums. But the ABA ticked them all because, despite even the Ziggy email, it said it could not prove – ‘Mr Jones’ political comments were requested and authorised by Telstra.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p40

Well, what about the Commercial Radio Code of Practice, designed to protect listeners by requiring that on shows like Jones’ – ‘reasonable opportunities are given to present significant viewpoints when dealing with controversial issues of public importance.’ – Commercial Radio Codes of Practice, clause 2.2(c)

Issues like the quality of Telstra’s service. Jones made broadcast after broadcast, defending Telstra’s service record. The ABA acknowledges – ‘there were no interviews with experts or commentators who might hold opposing views.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p46

And Telstra’s competitors – Optus and Hutchison – have told Media Watch their experts and spokespersons have not been on Jones’ breakfast show since his deal with Telstra.

According to the ABA, the only anti-Telstra voices heard on Jones’ show were callers. And how did he treat them? ‘callers critical of Telstra’s service standards were generally contradicted.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p46

So, surely Jones and Macquarie Radio have fallen foul of the code here? Well, no. It was enough, said the ABA, that ‘Jones from time to time invited callers to ring in and, in the absence of any evidence that the producer of the program filtered out negative calls, or that callers with different viewpoints were cut off more quickly than callers who agreed with Mr Jones, the ABA cannot find a breach of the Code’. – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p47

So, did the ABA look for evidence that Alan Jones might be culling hostile calls? It doesn’t seem so. Jones just gets another tick.

Everything gets a tick, even the strategy Jones and John Singleton devised right at the start to stop sponsors paying Jones and make their money flow through the radio station.
You see, all those pesky disclosure rules other presenters on other radio stations stumble through apply only to – ‘commercial agreements between sponsors and presenters.’ – Disclosure Standard, Part 1, 5(a)

This deal was all about Jones; and the ABA report is full of evidence the presenter delivered Telstra value for money – but Telstra was only paying the radio station, so according to the ABA – ‘Mr Jones is not a party to the Agreement.’ – ABA Investigation relating to Sponsorship of Alan Jones’ Program, p26

Neat isn’t it? This way Alan doesn’t have to own up to the money behind the spruiking every time he goes into bat for Telstra.

It looks like Jones was right on the money when he defended the Telstra deal to Monica Attard – ‘It’s above the law, within the limits of the ABA and everything else so there’s nothing wrong with any of that.’ – ABC local radio, Sunday Profile, 13 October 2002

The Communications Law Centre, which made the formal complaint behind this investigation 18 months ago, has now written to the ABA – ‘The latest report on Alan Jones has effectively documented a strategic means of bypassing regulation of commercial agreements’.

The centre proposes tough new standards to stop Cash for Comment Mark 2 in its tracks. But, the ABA isn’t interested.
That’s the way the world goes round. Until next week, goodnight.”